Castro’s Nuclear Dreams: Exploring Cuba’s Juragua Nuclear Power Plant

Featured Image by David Grant, used under CC BY 2.0

One fine day in Cuba

One fine day in Cuba, we were driving a rental car along the coast between Playa Giron and Cienfuegos, and decided to visit Castillo de Jagua, an old Spanish fort overlooking the sea.

There was the occasional taxi carrying tourists on sight-seeing trips, but otherwise the roads were empty.

Then, on the horizon, I spotted a strange concrete dome-like structure. It was difficult to make out what it was — the idea of a nuclear reactor containment structure occurred to me, but I discounted it as I knew there was no nuclear power in Cuba.

But as it loomed closer, I couldn’t think of anything else it could be. A little closer still and I could make out electricity pylons, bare of conductor wires, and the concrete dome was beginning to look a little derelict. It began to make sense — this must be an abandoned nuclear power plant. Forgetting about the castle, I was determined to get a closer look.

The building was an extraordinary sight

I expected to find barbed wire fences, armed guards and dogs. In fact, the only guards were prickly bushes encroaching on the deteriorating side road leading towards the mysterious dome. Not so much as a fence or a ‘keep out’ sign separated the site from the main road.

“Slogans painted on the outside of the buildings urged long-departed workers onward towards the eternal victory.”

As we got closer, the scale of the site became more apparent. I drove right up to the reactor building, which loomed 10-stories high above the car. Surrounding us were other buildings in various stages of construction or de-construction.

The reactor building was an extraordinary sight — I could make out a faded slogan painted on the wall in Cyrillic and Spanish — the word ‘atom’ was clearly visible.

There was no doubt that this was a nuclear site. The most extraordinary thing however was that there was a ground-level hole in the side of the building, at least the size of a double decker bus, which lead directly into what was evidently the reactor vessel itself.

I nervously walked down the tunnel…

At any minute I expected the full might of the Cuban security apparatus to descend on us so I quickly resolved to at least get a few pictures of the building and the reactor. I nervously walked down the tunnel into the heart of the building, noting that there were gaping holes in the floor leading to the dark depths.

The reactor vessel itself was constructed of thick steel plate surrounded by a metre or more of reinforced concrete, more steel plate and then more concrete, with rebars protruding all around the opening.

It appeared that the access tunnel was left to allow equipment to be taken into the reactor vessel, with the intention that it would be sealed up once construction was complete. However, I got the impression from the ragged irregular shape of the hole in the steel plate that it had been enlarged from its original size — perhaps intended to be a sign that this reactor was never going to be finished, a symbolic end to the project.

At the back of my mind was the thought that nuclear reactors are normally off-limits due to the obvious hazards of radiation, but I concluded that this reactor had never been commissioned and was not likely to have anything radioactive lying around. Even the Cubans wouldn’t leave a five-metre hole in the side of a reactor which contained radioactive material.

There was a huge, dark, towering black space

I climbed past the thick concrete, protruding rebar and jagged steel plate into the black hole that was the reactor. Looking down, the floor seemed solid. Looking up, there was a huge, dark, towering black space, with hundreds of tons of steel waiting to crash down on me.

I snapped a few pictures on my phone. The light was not conducive to photography — the midday sun was beating down outside, but the huge cavernous space of the reactor was almost pitch dark.

My Cuban companion who was waiting with the car at the entrance to the tunnel was now anxiously calling out to me, so I headed back out into the blazing sunshine, half expecting a contingent of jobsworth policemen with guns waiting to take us to the local police station for questioning.

Instead there was a sun-beaten old man on an ancient bicycle, who turned out to be the head of security for the site. I asked him some questions about the place — it was obvious that we weren’t there to steal scrap metal, and he enthusiastically started telling us the story.

It was started by the Soviets in the 1980s but work stopped in the early 1990s. There were originally to be four reactors on the site. The one we were beside was almost completed, and a second one nearby was started. He pointed out the auxiliary buildings for administration, fuel storage and processing, the turbine building, etc. Unfortunately, my Spanish was not good enough to understand everything he said but I got the gist of it.

I asked if we could have a look inside — half expecting him to tell us not to be so stupid — instead he agreed without hesitation.

Luckily, I had a few LED torches with me, so we set off through a doorway leading to a staircase. Painted on the wall at each landing was the height from ground level. It was hard to tell whether the electrics and metalwork had never been installed, or had been removed for scrap, but either way it was pitch dark apart from our little torches and the occasional blinding beam of sunlight where we passed a penetration in the outer skin of the building. There were no handrails as we climbed the bare concrete stairs.

The reactor was contemporary with Chernobyl

We climbed up a few flights and went down a corridor. There was a large empty lift shaft which I nervously peered up and down.

My knowledge of nuclear reactor design is not expert, but I recognised the huge steam generator drums overhead.

This reactor was roughly contemporary with Chernobyl in its construction, but of a different design, with the characteristic concrete dome indicating the addition of full secondary containment, which would have prevented the 1986 disaster.

We reached the 10.5 metre level — roughly four storeys above ground level.

I sorely wished I had something better than my phone with which to take pictures. The pitiful flash did little to illuminate the vast dark spaces. Our guide explained that the building went a further 10 meters up to roof level, and that the building went down into the ground as far as it went upwards.

For now, however, this was as far as he was willing to take us. We made our way back down and out into the bright sunlight, and explored another ground-level room, which contained what appeared to be casings for large diesel-powered generators, presumably to provide backup power for cooling pumps. They had long since been stripped of all removable parts. In the floor were missing sections of steel plate revealing large piping several metres down.

I could hear somewhere in the distance the sounds of someone hammering away, and our guide was beginning to look a bit nervous, so before he could object I went to have a look at some of the other nearby
buildings.

The second reactor appeared to be identical in construction to the first, but its walls reach only a few metres above ground level.

It was evident that we could have spent days exploring the whole site, and I was keen to head over to the turbine building, but my Cuban companion called me back again — the guide was definitely keen that we leave now. I didn’t want to push our luck, so we thanked him with some beers and a few convertible pesos.

Driving away from the power plant site itself, we explored the surrounding area. Clearly this was intended to have been a large complex, with characteristically Communist concrete buildings in various states of disuse or demolition.

Typical Cuban Communist slogans were painted on the outside of some buildings, urging long-departed workers onward towards the eternal victory. A very few buildings were still in active use.

A few bored-looking people watched us drive by with curiosity

After visiting the historic fort town of Jagua, we headed for the Ciudad Nuclear — Cuba’s version of Pripyat, located a few kilometres from the nuclear plant and evidently built to house the workers for the plant and its surrounding industry.

Like Pripyat, this was clearly planned to be an idyllic, modern place to live, with wide boulevards sweeping past the now very dated buildings.

But just as clearly, work on this town had been as abortive as work on the reactor site. A residential tower block stood as an empty shell, its concrete structure complete to match its similar neighbour, but without doors or windows. A few bored-looking people watched us drive by with curiosity, but the streets were otherwise empty.

I definitely hope to return at some future date and visit more of the site, though I think we may have been lucky to gain the access we did.

See also the Wikipedia entry at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juragua_Nuclear_Power_Plant

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